John Battle MP visited Brazil with the Catholic Institute for International Relations. He reports on the economic and land crisis in the country and on the church's option for the poor
IN his VW Beetle on the way into Sao Paulo from the airport, I asked Fr Pat Clarke, an Irish priest working with shanty town (favela) communities, what Brazil was really like with its hyper inflation, land conflicts and rapidly over-expanding cities.
He replied, "there's a sense of apocalypse here".
I was surprised by the stark negativity of his answer. Perhaps I'd expected him to tell me about the positive role of the church, the life of basic communities, the work of lay agents, and the practice of liberation theology. Surely the church was setting hope against the despair of the situation? The Brazilian bishops' conference had organised a national conference a semana socialto support workers' popular movements.
What became clearer from my two week visit to Sao Paulo and to Rio Maria, a town in southern Amazonia, in addition to the semana social in Brasilia, was that in Brazil hope and despair cannot be neatly divided or isolated.
Contact with the church in Brazil involves discovering signs of life in the midst of death, realised particularly in the Rio Maria community mass on All Souls' Day in the cemetery among the graves of martyred rural workers, and witnessed to by the woman who had just lost all her possessions in a favela fire and was anxious to get back copies of the prayer of St Francis and the words of Hail Holy Queen.
Bishop Luciano Mendes De Almendi, president of the bishops' conference, insisted at the semana social "first, believe in human beings".
Faith in community and a deep and vital understanding of the central question of land in development are at the core of the church's work in Brazil.
Living in a northern British city, it's easy to dismiss the question of "land" and "land reform" as irrelevant or merely historical. Land tends to be regarded as a specialist third world development matter a stage of agricultural revolution to be replaced by the process of industrialisation and modemisation.
The land problem is key in present day Brazil despite industrial development (the Collor government dreams of taking Brazil into the big league of economic powers) and despite the fact that 76 per cent of the Brazilian population now live in cities. There are still 23 million people living in the rural zones, of whom four million have no land of their own. Many of them live in poverty. Millions have been driven to the cities by expulsion from the land.
There is a direct link between the numerous poor of the drought -prone north east of Brazil, the recent mass expansion of Sao Paulo in the industrial south (population now 18 million) and the military government's efforts to take the pressure off in the 1980s by opening up the vast
tracts of rainforest land in north west Brazil by blazing the Transamazonian highway through from east to west as a resettlement route.
This geographical triangle was reinforced by government incentives, proclaimed as "land without people for people without land", to get Brazilians to move west and settle the newly spened up burnt forest land. But as the land was being cleared absent land owners staked their claims, buying and selling land literally under the feet of the rural workers. The result has been intense and violent land conflicts.
The Brazilian land reform organisations Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurals Sem Terra (MST) and the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) of the Brazilian bishops both lead the struggle for landless families to get them land and to enable them to farm it sustainably in the face of violent resistance by landowners (and the authorities) to land reform.
In this struggle rural workers leaders have been murdered with impunity. Since 1964, 1650 rural workers, lawyers, church workers and priests have been killed in land conflicts; 488 since 1985. The conviction rate is 1.47 per cent
It is therefore, with the deepest theological significance that the Pastoral Land Commission's 1990 annual report is entitled "The Thorny Road to Freedom". It is the most detailed record available of the sufferings and deaths of brothers and sisters in their struggle for land. The government response to the landless movements is repression. The land reform question is treated as a matter for the police.
The widows of martyred rural workers we met in Rio Maria, the rural workers union representatives and the posseiros community out on the Canaan homestead (where rural workers have taken possession of the land and are demanding settlement rights) all demanded not simply justice for murdered brothers and sisters but land and agrarian reform.
Even when some settlement rights had been won, farming isnot easy. At a family farmstead where we shared a meal with local rural workers, we sat on stacked sacks of maize that couldn't be got to market in Rio Maria because of transportation problems they couldn't afford horse, cart or truck. On the wall was pinned a coloured-in picture of the nativity of Christ set in an Amazonian farmstead with the fruit and vegetables coming through. But as one elder stressed "people in rural areas go hungry". The picture was part of the church's catechetical programme.
There are now more than 600 resettlements on land won as a result of pressure by rural
workers. Farming co-operation based on union meetings of all the members of the resettlements is a real basis for land reform.
In Sao Paulo I learnt the word mutirao. It has no synonym in English ("meitheal" in Irish), but is a word rooted in rural communities referring to the mutual support that is given in times of need.
When he recently visited London on his way to receive the "alternative Nobel Prize" on behalf of the Pastoral Land Commission, Amazon Bishop Jorge Marskell said: "when people learn to organise and come together in communion, they learn they have power not the power that dominates but the power that serves".
As I went back to the airport with Fr Pat Clarke, I asked where did this option for the poor leave the rich of the world. He referred to Jesus' words about getting through the eye of the needle, but then added, "remember, the rich are not turned away they are invited to the feast. There remains an open invitation it's up to them to take it up".
You can contact CIIR at Unit 3, Canonbury Yard, 190a New North Road London NI 78J.